When I was in seminary, I took a grand total of one class with any regard to mental health. In that class, the professor gave really sound advice about mental health issues, “These are medical issues. Don’t get in over your head. Get the professionals involved right away and let them work.”
With a room full of bright eyed 25 year olds who believed they were the next Billy Graham, I can’t imagine more sound logic. But it could have been even better.
After finishing seminary, we all went in different directions and began work. I started to ask what people had experienced when they asked their pastor about their mental health, and I saw a trend in the church. People with mental illness would talk to their pastor, get a referral to a counselor, and sometimes, a follow up to see how they were doing and if the counselor was a good fit.
Something was missing.
We had talked to numerous people trying to figure out how we could help. In the interviews, we uncovered a few universal truths.
1) Every person believed they were a disappointment to God.
2) Every person believed they would never be the person they were before the onset of symptoms.
3) Every person believed that God couldn’t really love them and let them go through mental illness.
All of these questions had one thing in common: they were faith questions about what it meant to be human.
While I was in seminary, I saw two mentors and a counselor on a weekly basis. I did a lot of work on myself and those three men were integral in it all. My takeaway from that time was incredibly simple:
I was good and valuable just by virtue of being made that way.
Speaking about this journey seems weird to me. Everyone in church knows Jesus loves them. He went to the cross and died for our sins. That is the ultimate loving act. Why would something that is so simple and that everybody knows take years of therapy and work with two other mentors to work through? I know now that I had known that God loved me, but I believed that God was so good for everyone else. I believed He could never be that good to me. I could never be enough for something that good.
In our interviews, we found that people universally felt the same. They knew God loved them, but they believed they needed to perform to be good enough. If they did enough ministry, service, work, or cared for their families well enough, then they could be enough, but who they were as human being was not. Then mental illness was added to the mix and they began to struggle. If a person naturally believed they needed to do so much to be good enough for God, what would happen when they were not able to perform like they had? They would be struck with two major events, a depression and a loss of identity. And while they could talk to their psychiatrist about their depression, who can they talk to about their spiritual identity crisis?
The church has the incredible opportunity to help people experience who they are as beloved sons and daughters, as valuable people, as enough. It has the opportunity to tell people they still matter even if they feel worthless or incapable. And it can tell people that God knows they are struggling, and He does not expect them to be superhuman and continue to do all they have for years while also battling mental illness.
Instead of just giving a referral, what if church looked different? If when people told their pastor about their mental health, what if they got a referral to a great therapist and psychiatric resources, and also heard they still mattered, that this illness does not define them, and that God already believes they are enough. What if they heard that If they need to take a season to heal, they can, that the Kingdom will keep moving, God will keep doing things, but right now their job is to receive and heal instead of trying desperately to give all the time.
In that space, the church could help people with mental health issues get well and experience who Jesus really is. People could experience themselves as they are and find hope. I think that is what the church is meant to do.
Brandon Appelhans is the cofounder and executive director of My Quiet Cave, a nonprofit in Denver, CO dedicated to creating spaces for faith and mental health to empower the Church to engage mental illness. He, his wife, son and two dogs live in Denver, CO.